This is the sixth guest post in our series examining the ways that the current health crisis has impacted those of us who sit at the intersection of martial arts practice, communities of martial artists, and Martial Arts Studies. This essay, by Chad Eisner, explores the economic fallout of the epidemic for small business owners and considers its potential to reshape the ways in which the martial arts community understands itself. If you would like to share some of your experiences or thoughts about the theoretical implications of all of this, please feel free to send me an email.
“Martial Arts in the Time of COVID”
by Chad Eisner
Pandemics and their Discontents
I have always adhered to the philosophy of “enjoy it while you have it, because it can disappear as quickly as it came.” Never in a million years would I have predicted that this would become the defining challenge of my adult life. Nothing has prepared me for the slow-moving devastation of this disease, nor the sociological effects it is creating. While I am well enough situated to survive this event, and I have resources that I can lean on, the continued lock-down, and the slow advance of the virus in Michigan, is taking a psychological toll. I can’t imagine that I’m alone in this.
My main source of income, and now worry, is our multi-generational family business. My family owns and operates a large fitness facility in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We are successful, very much so, having a good number of employees and a clientele composed largely of professors, businesspeople, doctors, and the like. Yet our doors have now been closed for almost two months. Our prior success notwithstanding, it took only one week for us to feel the enormous financial pressure of the lock down. Like everyone else in the fitness industry, we are a “cashflow business.” As soon as payments stop, only bills and expenses remain. As successful as things were, our margins were not enough to protect us from the real danger of going out of business.
As a fitness and martial arts instructor, all of my classes have been on hold since the 15th of March. Long planed trips have been canceled and all workshops and visits are in limbo. I was planning to bring my teacher, Master Ma Yue, in for training and to work on projects. Of course, that is now on hold. Pretty much all of my real-world activities have ground to a halt. Yet again, in this respect, I am lucky. I came to this crisis with a good amount of experience with online teaching and distance training. I even run an organization that specializes in this very thing. And yet, even being fortunate, and with a good parachute, I find that the future is now completely uncertain. More than that, it is type of uncertain that I have never before expereinced.
As I readily admit, I am fortunate that I have support systems in my life. I understand that not everyone, and in reality on a relatively few, enjoy them. Traditional martial arts schools were having a tough time even before COVID-19. Despite the fact that their doors are closed, and no money is coming in, and rent still due every month. The challenges could be insurmountable for many. There are many martial arts instructors who are now faced with the prospect of losing their businesses and being forced to start over. While many will, others will not be able to. Perhaps they will lack the necessary capital. Rent is expensive, as are mats, insurance and training equipment. Maybe a generation of teachers who were already close to retirement will find themselves grasping for other, less tangible, resources. These are the real moment to moment issues that face us in the martial arts world right now. Even those who once enjoyed relative success are also in trouble.
Sadly, this is just the beginning. We have no idea what changes the future will bring as far as group practice go. This is an essential question for martial arts schools as most of us like to spar, train or practice with many classmates. As teachers, we have to start thinking of ways to adapt to our “new normal” once the lock-downs end. How long can martial arts and combat sport expect to be furloughed? This is going to depend on the progress of the disease and its treatments. It will also be subject to local state and national directives.
Then there is long-term impact of this on the public’s wants and desires. How long before the public feels comfortable not social distancing? Will the rules of social distancing ever really go away entirely (at least before we have a vaccine)? Will we now have different sets of rules for physical contact? If so, how are martial arts going to be impacted by that?
A Brave New World?
Even with the transition to online training that is now unfolding before our eyes, some arts can be translated to a visual format easier than others. And the fact that competitions are on hold means that many folks cannot use their training in the way they want even if they can get it. Consider another very practical question. Many of us use protective gear in our disciplines. Will students continue to want to use difficult to clean and disinfect loaner gear? For both ethical and liability reasons, should we even offer it going forward? If we require more up-front investment from potential students in terms of purchasing equipment, will they still sign up and join clubs? Everyone who owns a school or business is stumbling in the dark. If the students do not come when we reopen, what is there to do?
Not all the martial arts are affected the same way. Certain traditional arts like Kung Fu, Karate, and others contain extensive collections of solo-forms, drills and other health practices which seem particularly relevant right now. They are also having an easier time transitioning to Zoom because there is so much preexisting material that can be taught through a video format. On the other hand, students of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, wrestling, kick boxing, Kendo, Fencing and other sports that require a partner for a good deal of their training time can only find this time frustrating. Without an opponent or second player, most competitive sports cannot be played. This is a problem for all athletics right now, and there is great deal of uncertainty even at the highest levels.
Again, we must understand, that the continuing financial hardships being placed on schools right now could eventually cause many of them to go out of business despite what they have been able to do to stay afloat during the pandemic. This is an unavoidable fact of the world we live. For some, COVID-19 may force a decision that has been a long time coming. Yet even successful firms in the fitness industry have been blindsided by this and are struggling against the clock.
The landscape facing consumers and martial arts students has completely changed. Indeed, the term “Wild West” comes to mind. The chaos, uncertainty, and unpredictable nature of the emerging landscape for martial arts instruction is daunting. Of course, many are transitioning to teaching on-line. A few more successful instructors are finding this to be a good way to reach larger numbers of people around the globe than ever before. In some cases, this new-found enthusiasm, somewhat ironically, comes after years of decrying any form of remote leaning. Other instructors are simply doing what they can and struggling to maintain their student base. This dynamic alone could silence for remove some instructors from the picture almost over-night, a very scary thought.
Nevertheless, the one thing I really fear is that the old rivalries and the sectarianism of martial art will win the day. There are rivalries at all levels within martial art, from team and individual rivalries in sport, to the feuding of more traditional schools. We study the art of conflict and so it seems only natural that this contention will invite itself to our parties. And it goes on between “genres” of martial art as well. We are all familiar with the popular discourse pitting modern training against traditional martial art promoted through YouTube videos with titles like “MMA vs kung fu,” or “Fake Master gets knocked out by fighter.” While there are a number of outright fraudulent and exploitive martial arts and teachers out there, they generally know they are up to no good and don’t show up to public challenges.
While some modern fighters have respect for traditional arts, most public discourse on the topic is dumbed down to claims that traditional martial arts are inherently superstitious and fantasy-like. Conversely, traditional martial artists decry modern sport because of their rules or competitive dynamics not being “realistic.” All of these divisions continue to exist as we are moved out of our comfort zones and saddled with an unknown future. Now we enter a strange virtual world that has, in the past, has been dominated by trolls and keyboard warriors. We are all vulnerable right now. Given that the changing landscape threatens all of our livelihoods, will this stress find release in the stoking of past flame wars?
Wu Song Breaks his Manacles
There is a lot of fear, anxiety and frustration in our industry. I feel it every day. And it can be hard to imagine positive, for at least less negative, aspects of the situation. Yet, for my part, what I see is a unique opportunity to forge new, and very real, connections between martial artists during a time of physical separation. The very challenges we face create a demand for something to bring us to together. Collectively, we have more than enough training modalities within martial art to accommodate anything and anyone. Often, we are tied up with our own arts and methods and forget that there are different ways of doing things and even different things to do.
Consider again the feud between traditional and modern sport/competitive arts. I believe each one has much to learn for the other. And this is a perfect time to foster that kind of exchange. Traditional arts have much to offer in the way of solo training and drills for fitness and technique. Combat sports have a great deal of practical knowledge and scientific information that is often ignored or eschewed by traditional arts. Both of these sectors could benefit from the other. Combat sport athletes highly invested in the “reality” of unfettered exchange might find value in new approaches to solo-practice. Likewise, traditional arts can gain insight into how their methods translate (or fail to translate) in competitive settings. As someone who has trained extensively in both modalities, I can say that both are improved by the other.
The explosion of online connections and Zoom classes might also galvanize a greater sense of cohesiveness within the martial arts community. We can now talk to each other, take each other’s classes and see things from another’s points of view. As long as we stay open to new approaches and earnestly approach them, the total is always greater than the sum of its parts. And it goes without saying that this is a great way to support our fellow teachers and schools. We do not want anyone, or any system of knowledge, to disappear because of this pandemic. Yet as things stand now, that is a very real possibility.
Still, emotions are raw. Frustrations over interrupted training, work, income and bills can overwhelm anyone. The challenges are great right now, but aren’t times of crisis precisely what the martial arts prepare their students for? That means if you are a teacher or instructor, get out here and teach! Make videos, have classes on Zoom. Explore out of your comfort zone. And support others who do. Enjoy checking out other people and other arts. Add something to your knowledge that you can then pass on to your students.
If you are a student, support your school. If you can still pay membership dues, consider keeping up those payments. I understand we are all under economic pressure. Yet if a few people do this, it goes a long way to getting the doors to open again once the threat of pandemic passes. If you cannot afford this, try to get involved with your school anyway. Talk to your teacher, see if they have a plan and if you can pitch in. A large part of the negative psychological effects of quarantine is the isolation. The act of reaching out these days is powerful. If they are holding online classes, attend them. If not, encourage them to do so. Activity and socialization are part and parcel to martial arts and why we love them. We don’t have to give that up.
Finally, take care of yourself. Find solace in practice. Most of us have lots of time on our hands to devote to neglected areas of training. We all are going to be called upon to use our imaginations more from here on out. The challenges faced by our beloved activities are many. The challenges within our lives are also increasing. But the practice of martial art has always been used to get their students through tough times. Whether it be a fight, emotional trauma, or even a long prison sentence, it is not a coincidence that we can always find a relevant martial arts parable for every tragedy. We must find this spirit again. When the lockdowns are over and we return to our world, changed as it may be, I hope that we can take what we learned and forge our new path together.
About the Author
Chad Eisner is an instructor and business owner. He Teaches Ma Shi Tong Bei, Historical Chinese weaponry and heads up TPLA, an international lightsaber organization that teaches online and in person. You can follow him at his blog, Fighting Words: Martial Arts, Language and Pop Culture.
If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: The Wing Chun Jo Fen: Norms and the Creation of a Southern Chinese Martial Arts Community.